The image that opens this essay is quite possibly the closest I will ever get to photographing a large wild animal in its natural habitat. But I think of this humble coyote, whom I came upon quite by chance in Death Valley a few years ago, as the standard-bearer for the countless animals, large and small, who suffer and die every day for no other reason than human self-indulgence. Let me begin with a recent story. A few weeks ago I spent some time with friends whom I had not seen in a long time. They had recently returned from an Arctic cruise. One of those extravaganzas run by a formerly reputable scientific organization that is now no more than a multimedia entertainment concern, no better than Disneyworld or Carnival, despite its illustrious name. While watching their photographs of the trip, I learned that, whenever a group of tour participants is on land, there are guards posted with high-powered rifles, who are supposed to shoot any polar bear who may approach. I was in utter shock. I was horrified. I was almost physically sick. I did my best to hide my very strong feelings, my anger, my anguish and my sorrow. I said something along the lines that, knowing that fact, I would never participate in any such cruise, and steered the conversation in another direction. My friends are intelligent and highly educated people, for whom I feel genuine affection. Yet I realized that they would not have been able to understand how I really feel about people who can accept the death of a polar bear, or of any animal, as no more than “collateral damage” to their sense of entitlement.
I have never been on a cruise, or a photographic safari, or any other type of “adventure tourism” group trip, nor have I ever had any interest in participating in any of these activities. My lack of interest was always based more on my reluctance to share time with my own species, and especially with the sort of loud, superficial and hedonistic people who tend to be attracted to these sojourns, than on anything else. I am ashamed to say that I had not given much thought to the enormous damage that this sort of activities inflict on the natural world, and especially to the animal suffering that they give rise to. Every now and then I would come across some news article about how mega-cruise-ships are overwhelming the Mediterranean, or the Caribbean, or Alaska or just about any other place on Earth. But, predictably, those articles tend to focus on the effects on humans, with perhaps some passing references to environmental degradation, sustainability, or some other fashionable buzzwords concocted to make the writers and readers feel that they are doing their part to “save the planet”. All very true, and certainly important. But my recent experience awoke me to the realization that the cost is far steeper than just increasing foot traffic and rent prices on Piazza San Marco.
I often wonder, how many of my fellow humans feel this way? What proportion of us is capable of understanding that animals are sentient individuals, each of them with heir own unique personality, and every one of them capable of suffering and of understanding that there is no reason for their suffering other than the cruelty of the human species? Whether intentional or caused by negligence or lack of interest, it makes no difference – it is still cruelty. Humans have given themselves the right to kill a polar bear because he or she may come close to a group of people who do not belong in the bear’s home, no matter how much they paid for the experience or how much the tour organizers claim (falsely) that they are striving for minimal impact. There is no “minimal” here, no grays. If a single animal is killed or suffers in any way, if there is even the possibility that this may happen, then it is a crime.
I will never set foot on a cruise ship, as I refuse to be responsible for killing a bear, or a whale who swims too close, or a seal or a manatee. I refuse to contribute to the poisoning of the oceans – by oil, sewage, trash – that kills uncounted fish, turtles, birds and mammals, each of them a sentient, feeling individual. I will of course not go on excursions to photograph animals who are lured using other defenseless animals. But I will not even contemplate joining a group of supposed “conservation-minded” people to try to get a glimpse of pumas or grizzly bears or jaguars or tigers or snow leopards or dolphins in their natural habitats. This is animal cruelty too. By treading into their homes we push those animals into inevitable encounters with other humans who will harm them. Where conservationists are (supposedly) interested in preserving species, I want to preserve individual sentient beings. A single non-human life takes precedence over a species.
So, my friendly coyote, you will stand here for all those others who cannot speak for themselves. If you can help even one human understand why I feel this way. If you can make one human understand that self-indulgence does not justify killing a single animal. If you can help me keep one person from joining any of these senseless activities. If you can help me save one non-human life, I will forever value our chance encounter more than I already do.